The last time we all watched an NFL game of any consequence, it was Super Bowl 50. We saw the Denver Broncos' defense turn in a dominant performance en route to a 24-10 victory over the Carolina Panthers. The next NFL game of any consequence kicks off Thursday night, and it will pit the same two teams against each other.
However, these teams are fundamentally different from the ones that took the field in Santa Clara last February. For the Panthers, star cornerback Josh Norman is gone after his franchise tag was surprisingly rescinded in April. He then hit free agency and landed in Washington. Weeks later, the Panthers drafted three cornerbacks and are expected to start two of them on Thursday.
Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak doesn't necessarily see this as a weakness his team can exploit, though, because of the strength of the front seven.
"They've had some changes back there but they've got one of, if not the best front in football, the top front in football, and when you play as well as they do up front and it makes it so difficult on you," Kubiak said. "Our challenge is to start upfront with their front seven. It's as good as I've ever competed against as an offensive coach."
Even though Carolina said goodbye to Norman, the team welcomes back wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who spent the 2015 season on injured reserve after tearing his ACL in training camp.
Benjamin is excited to take the field for his first regular season game since his rookie season in 2014.
"I'm pumped. I'm juiced," Benjamin said. "I'm ready. I'm ready to get on the field."
Last season, Cam Newton threw for 3,837 yards and 35 touchdowns, with then-30-year-old tight end Greg Olsen as his top receiver.
There are even bigger changes on the Broncos' sideline. When they take the field on Thursday night, it will be with Trevor Siemian under center instead of future Hall of Fame quarterback Peyton Manning. , a seventh-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, will face the Panthers without having thrown a single pass in a regular season NFL game.
Manning's retirement, along with some other notable Broncos departures in free agency -- linebacker Danny Trevathan, defensive tackle Malik Jackson and Manning's capable backup, Brock Osweiler -- led to Bovada making the Broncos 3-point underdogs at home. The home team usually gets a 3-point advantage over the visitors to begin with, so this suggests oddsmakers really expect the Broncos to be outmatched on Thursday night.
But Manning didn't win the Super Bowl for the Broncos. To say Manning's stat line from Super Bowl 50 was pedestrian is to oversell it. He completed just 13 of 23 passes for 141 yards, one touchdown and one interception, and his quarterback rating was an abysmal 56.6. No, Manning didn't win Super Bowl 50 for the Broncos. The defense did, led by Super Bowl MVP Von Miller.
But Miller knows that the Broncos won't have an easy time pulling off a win against the Panthers on Thursday, mainly because of Cam Newton. Miller has the utmost respect for Newton and his talent, even calling the quarterback "the best player in the National Football League."
"I admire Cam," Miller said on a conference call with the Charlotte media Sunday. "If I had a son that wanted to be a quarterback, I would point him in the direction of Cam Newton and Peyton Manning."
These aren't the same teams that faced off in February, but both teams are looking to start the regular season strong with a win on Thursday night. As they face a new season, it's an opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the year.
How to watch
When: 8:30 p.m. ET
Where: Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium, Denver, Colo.
Announcers: Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth
Odds: Panthers -3
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